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How Vallabhbhai Patel planned Hyderabad’s Operation Polo

“Gandhi’s death reunited Nehru and Patel. Their reconciliation not only saved Congress and India’s central government from collapse, but it kept Nehru in power. Without the Sardar’s strength and support Nehru might have broken down or been forced out of high office. Vallabhbhai ran India’s administration for the next two years (before his death) while Nehru indulged mostly in foreign affairs and high Himalayan adventures.

“The Sardar, as Congress’s strongman was called, was determined to stay and solve whatever problems remained, rather than running away from them. He had long viewed Nehru as a weak sister and often wondered why Gandhi thought so highly of him.”

This is probably the most accurate summation of Nehru and Patel, twins intertwined in India’s freedom movement struggle and the establishment of a strong united India.

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Alex Von Tunzelmann writing in ‘Indian Summer’ says: “Whatever may be said about Mountbatten’s tactics or the machinations of Patel, their achievement remains remarkable. Between them, and in less than a year, it may be argued that these two men achieved a larger India, more closely integrated, than had 90 years of British raj, 180 years of the Mughal Empire, or 130 years of Asoka and the Maurya rulers…

“He (Sardar Patel) was impervious to Mountbatten’s famous charm, describing the new Viceroy as ‘a toy for Jawaharlalji to play with while we arrange the revolution’… For Patel’s part, he realised immediately that Mountbatten, with his own semi-royal status and personal friendship with many of the princes, was uniquely suited to help India achieve its aim of leaving no state behind.”

Says Leonard Mosley in ‘The Last Days of the British Raj’: “Sir Conrad Corfield and other defenders of the princes were, however, being a little too optimistic. At the very moment that they breathed the heady air of victory, something came out of the blue and floored them. The blow came from the clasped hands of those two able political operators, Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon.

“When the Congress Party and Nehru decided to form a States Ministry they picked Patel as the obvious man to head it. Their mood was belligerent. They despised the Princes and they resented the British for lapsing paramountcy. They hoped and expected that the strong man of the Party would roll up his dhoti and wade in with sound, fury, and effect.

“Patel was far too wily a negotiator to do such a thing, particularly since he had the measure of Sir Conrad Corfield and admired him as a skilled and dangerous adversary. This was, he decided, no time for flailing fists and loud cries of screaming rage and fury. The blow must be subtle, unexpected, and must leave no unnecessary bruises…”

Another insight comes from V. Shankar, private secretary to Patel, who wrote in ‘My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel Vol. 1’: “But he (Sardar) had to contend with two important factors, one of them being Lord Mountbatten… Sardar had to be particularly patient because very often Lord Mountbatten succeeded in enlisting Pandit Nehru’s sympathies for his point of view…

“He was convinced that, in this matter of national importance, police action could not be ruled out in the case of Hyderabad and that the threat of its accession to Pakistan must be removed at all costs. As regards Junagadh he was not prepared for any compromise and finally succeeded in evolving and executing his own plans despite Lord Mountbatten’s counsels against precipitating matters or his suggestion of a plebiscite (under UN auspices)…

“He (Sardar) remarked with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Don’t you see we have two UN experts — one the Prime Minister (Nehru) and the other Lord Mountbatten — and I have to steer my way between them. However, I have my own idea of plebiscite. You wait and see.”

Shankar and V.P. Menon are the two people along with his daughter Maniben who understood Sardar Patel best due to their constant proximity with him during those days.

V. Shankar says: “Hyderabad occupied a special position in the British scheme of things and therefore touched a special chord in Lord Mountbatten … The ‘faithful ally’ concept still ruled the attitude of every British of importance … all the other rulers were watching whether the Indian government would concede to it a position different from the other states … Lastly, on Hyderabad, Pandit Nehru and some others in Delhi were prepared to take a special line; in this Mrs Sarojini Naidu and Miss Padmaja Naidu, both of whom occupied a special position in Pandit Nehru’s esteem, were not without influence …

“Apart from Lord Mountbatten’s understandable sympathy for the Muslim position in Hyderabad, shared by Pandit Nehru, in anything that concerned Pakistan even indirectly, he was for compromise and conciliation to the maximum extent possible … Sardar (Patel) was aware of the influence which Lord Mountbatten exercised over both Pandit Nehru and Gandhiji; often that influence was decisive … Sardar had made up his mind that Hyderabad must fit into his policy regarding the Indian states … I know how deeply anguished he used to feel at his helplessness in settling the problem with his accustomed swiftness. …

“Very tactfully, Sardar Patel waited for Mountbatten to first go from India forever, which he did on June 21, 1948 — lest he should interfere in the matter. Patel’s most formidable obstacle lay in Mountbatten and Nehru, who had been converted by Mountbatten to his point of view — not to let the Indian Army move into Hyderabad. Had Gandhi been alive, perhaps Nehru-Gandhi combine would not have allowed the action that Sardar took — Gandhi being a pacifist.

“Sardar Patel had fixed the zero hour for the Army to move into Hyderabad twice, and twice he had to postpone it under intense political pressure from Nehru and Rajaji. They instead directed V.P. Menon and H.M. Patel to draft a suitable reply to the Nizam on his appeal.

“While the reply to the Nizam was being readied, Sardar Patel summarily announced that the Army had already moved in, and nothing could be done to halt it. This he did after taking the Defence Minister, Baldev Singh, into confidence! Had Sardar Patel not showed such determination and guts, and had he not ignored the tame alternative suggested by Nehru and Rajaji, Hyderabad would have been another Kashmir or Pakistan!

“… the decision about the Police Action in Hyderabad in which case Sardar (Patel) described the dissent of Rajaji and Pandit Nehru as ‘the wailing of two widows as to how their departed husband (meaning Gandhiji) would have reacted to the decision involving such a departure from non-violence’.

“Meanwhile, a fanatical Muslim organisation, Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, headed by one Kasim Razvi had been fomenting trouble. They came to be known as the Razakars. At the instance of Kasim Razvi, the Nizam appointed Mir Laik Ali, a Hyderabadi businessman, who had also been a representative of Pakistan at the UN, the president of his Executive Council. With this the Hyderabad Government came virtually under Razvi.

“Razvi later met Sardar and Menon in Delhi to tell that Hyderabad would never surrender its independence, and that Hindus were happy under the Nizam; but if India insisted on a plebiscite, it is the sword which would decide the final result. Razvi further told Sardar Patel, ‘We shall fight and die to the last men’, to which Patel responded, ‘How can I stop you from committing suicide?’”

On the use of force by India to settle the Hyderabad issue, V. Shankar writes in ‘My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel, Vol 1’: “The entire staff for the purpose had been alerted and the timing depended on how long it would take for Sardar to overcome the resistance to this course by C. Rajagopalachari, who succeeded Lord Mountbatten as Governor General, and by Pandit Nehru, who found in C. Rajagopalachari an intellectual support for his non-violent policy towards Hyderabad.”

Shankar quotes Sardar’s response to a query: “Many have asked me the question what is going to happen to Hyderabad. They forget that when I spoke at Junagadh, I said openly that if Hyderabad did not behave properly, it would have to go the way Junagadh did. The words still stand and I stand by these words.”

Shankar further states in Vol. 2: “The situation in Hyderabad was progressing towards a climax. Under Sardar’s constant pressure, and despite the opposition of Pandit Nehru and Rajaji, the decision was taken to march into Hyderabad and thereby to put an end both to the suspended animation in which the State stood and the atrocities on the local population which had become a matter of daily occurrence.”

In a Cabinet meeting on September 8, 1948, while the States Ministry under Sardar Patel pressed for occupation of Hyderabad to put an end to the chaos there, Nehru strongly opposed the move and was highly critical of the attitude of the States Ministry. However, Sardar Patel prevailed.

Sardar Patel’s daughter’s ‘The Diary of Maniben Patel: 1936-50’ states: “About Hyderabad, Bapu (her father, Sardar Patel) said if his counselling had been accepted — the problem would have been long solved … Bapu replied (to Rajaji), ‘…Our viewpoint is different. I don’t want the future generation to curse me that these people when they got an opportunity did not do it and kept this ulcer (Hyderabad princely state) in the heart of India … It is States Ministry’s (which was under Sardar Patel) function (to make Hyderabad state accede to India).

“How long are you and Panditji going to bypass the States Ministry and carry on … Bapu told Rajaji that Jawaharlal continued his aberration for an hour and a half in the Cabinet — that we should decide our attitude about Hyderabad. The question will be raised in the UN … Bapu said, ‘I am very clear in my mind — if we have to fight — Nizam is finished. We cannot keep this ulcer in the heart of the Union. His dynasty is finished.’ He (Jawaharlal) was very angry/hot on this point.”

The particular prisms through which Nehru and Patel have been viewed may vary and differ, but what cannot be disputed is that they were both important to the integration of Princely States and in the modern construct of a unified new India.

Their tactics may have been different, the role of Lord Mountbatten too cannot be ignored in this grand canvas of 560-odd States — big and small — which needed to be digested without ulcers. Much akin to a relay race in which batons were handed over by Nehru to Mountbatten to Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon in a tough race which they completed in record time.

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